Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

tags: , , , , ,

An ocean without its unnamed monsters would be like a completely dreamless sleep.

– John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez (Penguin Classics; 1995).

Unlike any of the kids I grew up with, I was absolutely fascinated by sharks. Despite their bloodthirsty reputation, I saw them as elegant and beautiful creatures, although I never appreciated them as individual personalities. But when you read journalist Susan Casey’s book, The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks (Henry Holt and Company; 2005), you will feel as though you’ve met this group of sharks, and the most amazing thing that you will learn about them is that they do have their own special personalities.

Like most obsessions, the author’s interest in sharks began suddenly. She was housebound in New Mexico, suffering from mononucleosis. She flipped on the TV to a BBC documentary and was riveted by the sight of two young and outdoorsy men, Peter Pyle (who also is a famous ornithologist) and Scot Anderson, sitting in a tiny boat surrounded by Great White Sharks the size of minibuses. Intrigued to learn more about these two scientists and how they could thrive in such a challenging situation, Casey pursued the story. A few months later, she found herself being hoisted out of the early-winter oceanic swells and up a cliff face to the barren surface of Southeast Farallon Island on a crane. These islands, originally dubbed “The Devil’s Teeth” by sailors in the 1850s due to their dangerous and forbidding nature, also give the book its title — a subtle indication that this book is really a superficial tale about adventuring in the Farallones, not a serious treatise about its sharks and the scientists who study them.

Despite being located only 27 miles from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the rugged Farallon Islands are nearly inaccessible to humans, and are a popular autumn hangout for Great White Sharks, thus lending themselves well to rigorous scientific investigations without the circus-like atmosphere that exists in Australian and South African research. As a result, the wild Great White Sharks of the Farallons are among the best studied in the world. Throughout much of the book, Casey touches on the history of seabird, whale and seal over-exploitation, politics, greed and human habitation, and even briefly mentions the scientific research that has taken place on the islands over the past 150 years. But the author pointedly ignores a more meaningful exploration of the politics and natural history of the islands and of the research done there. Instead, she focuses on the shark guys’ “rugged, good looks” and on the sharks themselves: chasing them in a dinghy known (suggestively) to the researchers as “the dinnerplate”, spying on them from the islands’ lighthouse, and assessing their behavior by towing a surfboard through the surf. Pathetically, Casey devotes an entire chapter to the ghosts that haunt one of the main bedrooms in the island house and also reveals a perverse joy in writing about the fate of a ouija board that she brought with her on her last, disastrous, visit. Unfortunately for the reader, the author doesn’t actually see many sharks firsthand, so most of her tales about them are repackaged second- and third-hand accounts.

Most educational in this book were descriptions of the individual white sharks’ strong personalities. There’s the “gentle and maternal” Whiteslash and the “happy-go-lucky and somewhat goofy” Half Fin. Other sharks, with provocative names such as Bitehead, Gouge, Tipfin, Cal Ripfin, and Stumpy, displayed more sinister reputations. Despite this, one can still admire these amazing fish that have graced this planet since before trees existed. Also mentioned was evidence suggesting that at least some White Sharks, like some whale species, have migratory routes consisting of thousands of miles each year. Further, the much larger adult females, known as “The Sisters” to the researchers, appear to have two-year migratory routes since they only show up every other year in the Farallones.

The Devil’s Teeth is the compelling and well-written personal chronicle of Casey’s trials and tribulations as she single-mindedly pursued her desire to learn about Great White Sharks from the biologists who study them at California’s Southeast Farallon Islands. Like most true adventure books, we read about interesting wildlife — whales, seabirds, and seals in this case — treacherous weather conditions, and unusual local characters. Unfortunately, the author’s selfishness and immaturity turn what could have been an otherwise educational and informative story about sharks and shark research into a tale of obsession — an obsession that results in a 60-foot sailboat being lost at sea, seriously compromising one scientist’s career and destroying the other’s, and ruining the Great White Shark Research Project as well as radically altering the course of valuable and much-needed research into the lives of these mysterious and misunderstood animals. It made me wonder if the untold obsession was on the part of the “shark guys” since they inexplicably risked their careers to invite a silly, superstitious drama queen into their midst on the islands — illegally. Curiously, Casey does such a poor job developing the scientists’ personalities beyond describing their perfect muscle tone and passion for surfing that Pyle and Anderson were sadly interchangeable throughout the entire account — like furniture, actually.

The 287-page book includes 27 color and black-and-white images of the island, the scientists and some of the sharks that “star” in the book. I recommend this book to sunbathers lounging on a sandy beach, buffs of true adventure stories and to those who wish to casually experience the lives of marine biologists without getting wet. But more seriously, this book is a strong cautionary tale for scientists regarding the tremendous damage that one superstitious, narcissistic and self-aggrandizing journalist can do to the careers and the research of her subjects. Shark aficionados and those with a real interest in science and nature will be especially disappointed: there is no mention of any research about the behavior or natural history of Great White Sharks that was published during the author’s visits to the Farallon Islands and no suggestions for how the public can aid shark conservation — despite the fact that this particular species is expected to become extinct by the end of the decade. Although well-written, this true adventure story is a true waste, in my opinion.

Susan Casey is the development editor for Time, Inc.’s 180 magazine titles. Previously, she was the editor of Sports Illustrated Women and the creative director of Outside magazine where, with editor Mark Bryant, she led the magazine to three consecutive, history-making National Magazine Awards for General Excellence. At Outside, she was part of the editorial team that developed the stories behind Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm. Her writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Time and Fortune. A native of Toronto, Canada, she currently lives in NYC.

Comments

  1. #1 sfscientist
    March 14, 2009

    I completely agree with your review and remember that when the author came to the Bay Area for book signings it was very controversial. When reading the book I was horrified that she was able to ruin so much while becoming so successful herself. I can see how scientists might fall into the trap of being overly helpful to the point of disaster to those who flatter them about their research.

  2. #2 Pierce R. Butler
    March 14, 2009

    Just to be utterly clear – was it Casey‘s obsession that damaged one career and wrecked another (and a 60-ft boat)? Was the obsession about sharks (doesn’t sound like it), sexy male bodies (does sound like it), or just plain ol’-fashioned sensationalism?

    Perhaps the fact that Casey didn’t end up as sharkshit should be entered in a proof-of-miracles database somewhere.

  3. #3 Dean Crawford
    March 18, 2009

    Grateful as I am for this very intelligent and well-informed review, I have to wonder why Casey’s flawed, self-serving book continues to gain so much attention, even from the non-sensationalizing press, while more honest books are ignored. I’m thinking of my own book, Shark, which I wrote for love, not much money, and published with an academic house.

  4. #4 "GrrlScientist"
    March 18, 2009

    dean — i rarely write negative book reviews because there are so many GOOD books out there to tell the public about, but in this case, i was so angry that i felt it was my responsibility to warn people about this book, and this horrible woman. that said, i would be most delighted to review your book on my blog — it looks very good! my mailing address is located in my “fan mail” button at the top of this blog, just under the banner.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!